Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith Discuss Their Script, "Summer of 84"
Also, why they came to resent comparisons to "Stranger Things" and "IT."
Plus, "Words From a Mad Man": Rich Sommer's favorite horror genre; why he won't let his kids watch "Summer of 84"; and his very own ACTION FIGURE!
By: Nick Runyeard
Evil Editor-in-Chief, 8FLiX
You Can Download & Read the Original, Full "Summer of 84" Screenplay
We wrap "31 Days of Horror Screenplays (2021)" with this Halloween treat.
Before We Begin
The idea, which is not original to me, is to frame interviews more like conversations. I mean, I'm not talking to Heads of State here. Neither am I doing hard-journalism for the big daily print newspapers or trade 'zines. So why not have some fun with it? (note to actual journalists: I still consider you fun; I really do!)
I reached out to Stephen and made my pitch.
"Let's do an interview, for print, but make it like a conversation," I says. "As if we are sitting down, just having a chat," I says.
"Sure! We'd love to," Steve replies, referring to both he and Matt.
Then I says to Steve, I says, "Some of the feature articles in GQ and Esquire use a similar format. And I've always enjoyed reading those," I says, reinforcing my enthusiasm for this non-exclusive style.
Okay, I was totally paraphrasing and misquoting just then. But that's also my point.
By letting the interviewee respond in writing, the way one would converse, is win-win.
What my point really is.
Sure, this idea of a literal "conversation piece" means no misquotes. No misleading text. No false claims. But, also equally important, it's a lot less work for me! As I said: win-win.
Like, no transcribing audio recordings. Right? No manual labor like typing. Oh, and none of the hand-cramping that comes with actual, physical writing in a notebook like those suckers at the dailies.
And, the fact that Matt and Stephen are writers, and thus intrinsically meticulous when it comes to their work, means written answers are gold. I mean, seriously, my would-be shitty article would-be-come brilliant.
I continue to ride the coattails of much better writers than me. Or I. Or whatever. ~NR
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work. Stephen King
Screenwriters Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith and Actor Rich Sommer on "Summer of 84"
The writers talk about getting "Summer of 84" made and why it's not "Stranger Things."
Plus: why "Summer of 84" had to be circa 1984.
Before we begin, I'll state the obvious just for clarity.
Whenever you see NR, that's me asking the question. Which, of course, means ML is Matt Leslie and SS is Stephen Smith -- the movie's two screenwriters. And then, you guessed it, RS is Rich Sommer ("Mad Men" guy who plays Mackey in the movie).
Picture Start: Great Minds Think Alike
What could happen if/when high-rollers and indie producers have the same idea.
An ode to Horror, Part One: Netflix
NR: First, let's talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. I'm thrilled to get a chance to ask THE people who know better than anyone else. Is there any justification for comparing your script with "Stranger Things" and "IT"?
SS: Had to go there, didn’t you? Haha. We had a very complicated relationship with those two, especially Stranger Things. Really, it was just a coincidence of timing. Anyone who really knows how movies are made knows that they take a very long time to come together. We wrote Summer of ‘84 in 2015, and it wasn’t filmed until 2017. In that timespan, we worked hard to get the right people to read it, to get RKSS attached to direct, and while we were in that process, the very first teaser trailer for Stranger Things hit.
ML: That first day the trailer was out, everyone we knew was sending it to us, asking if that was our movie, or if we were upset another project was coming out with kids in the 80s. Their first season came out and was a smash hit, and it actually helped us get the last few pieces of SO84 together, because suddenly the 80s were hot. So that was good. And thankfully, after watching the first season, we knew our movie had nothing to do with what they were doing. But then during filming, we had production design create a Reagan/Bush yard sign for the 1984 presidential campaign, and we were so happy about having it in our movie, and then the first trailer for the second season of Stranger Things hit, and they had the EXACT same sign in the trailer.
Summer of 84 ≠ Sranger Things + IT
When the (fictional) murdering of children became okay to write about.
An ode to Horror, Part Two: The IT Factor.
SS: At that point, we started getting a little resentful, because on the surface, they were stepping on our toes and moving faster than we could because it was such a mega hit with all the money they wanted to do a lot of things we couldn’t do at our budget. When our movie came out, so many people and critics were quick to compare us to Stranger Things or say we were cashing in on the 80s phenomenon that was exploding because of it, and it was so frustrating because we’d been working for years to get our movie made, and this series just sprang up at the same time and really there aren’t a lot of strong comparisons to be made between them.
ML: Yeah, beyond the 80s timeframe and kids riding bikes, there’s not much that SO84 shares with Stranger Things, so it’s not really a fair comparison. At the end of the day, when people say we were copying Stranger Things, they couldn’t be farther from the truth. We were paying homage to the movies of our youth, like The Goonies, Fright Night, and The Burbs, while adding our own twist in the form of an ending that no one would forget. And then with IT, it’s a similar situation where it’s a completely different kind of story. It was interesting that in the early days, we got a lot of passes on our script from various places because people weren’t comfortable with the idea of killing a kid. Then IT comes out, and the opening scene is the gruesome death of a kid. So then it was suddenly a non-issue in our script and we didn’t have to fight so hard to keep our ending.
What's worse than getting brutally murdered by a serial killer?
Waiting to be brutally murdered by a serial killer.
Picking up where we left off (contains major spoilers).
NR: What inspired SO84's story?
ML: We touched on this a bit already, but it was basically a love letter to some of our favorite childhood movies. The Goonies made us believe buried treasure could be in our own backyard, while The Burbs and Fright Night made us believe something dark and insidious could be brewing right next door. Suburbia wasn’t the safe haven we’d all been lulled into believing it was. That was exciting to two suburban kids like us, and it made our imaginations run wild. But we didn’t wanna make the version of the story we’d seen before where something evil is unearthed and in the end, good prevails, unscathed. No, to us, real life is much less cut and dry — good and evil do battle and the results are complicated and ugly. Sometimes people knock our film because they say it’s predictable until the end. That’s by design. We wanted to lull viewers into thinking Summer of ‘84 is a story they’ve seen before… until we yank the rug out from under them when Woody’s killed and Davey’s left with a fate some would argue is worse than death.
SS: Totally. And we both had houses in our neighborhoods growing up where everyone kind of stayed away and you always wondered what went on in there. That dark, mysterious house down the street with people living there that you never saw, even though you knew basically everyone else around really well. We thought that fear of your neighbors and what happens behind closed doors on your own block was such a neat horror theme to build a story around.
There's a time and a place for everything.
That time when things started to get evil.
NR: Would the idea have worked with a 90s or 00s or any other timeline? Why is the summer of 84 important to the narrative of SO84?
SS: We decided to set the movie in the 80s, and specifically ‘84, because looking back at that time, it really felt like a cultural shift was happening then. We’re both a little young to remember that time clearly on our own — we were more 90s kids — but we do remember that time as feeling more idyllic and optimistic. And then around ‘84, there was this sort of loss of innocence for the country.
ML: Yeah, I remember there was a string of burglaries in my neighborhood around that time. It really rocked my sleepy community. Suddenly, people started locking their doors. And on a macro level, the Cold War had people questioning their neighbors. It was like everyone suddenly started looking over their shoulders and not trusting so easily anymore. And we thought the story of a serial killer living next door fit into that idea so perfectly. You have this neighborhood that hasn’t been infiltrated by that stuff just yet, and this group of kids that’s pretty insulated in their suburban comfort, and then this darkness is brought in and it shatters that illusion for them. Their childhood ends as they’re faced with the scary reality of the real world. Their innocence is stripped away and will never return. They begin the story as kids, and they end it as adults with a more wary view of the world.
SS: Also, just from a functional perspective, a lot of the things our hero kids do in the movie to try and prove Mackey’s guilty would be incredibly different in a later time period because of technology. This story couldn’t happen today with smartphones and the internet and all that. Not to say a serial killer can’t be living down your block right now (you’re welcome for that), but because of tech, the plot beats would be totally different. Kids now would never break into a house and look around in person, they’d maybe just fly a drone over to do the spying instead. They wouldn’t be looking up newspaper articles at the library, they’d just Google everything.
Plus, there are great opportunities to build tension in a time without all that technology. The moment when Davey figures out Mackey’s phone number by calling the operator, or when Mackey comes into Davey’s house to make a phone call to his supposed nephew — those are fun moments full of tension that just wouldn’t happen today.
Introducing Your Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer
So much for the old adage, "Don't talk to strangers."
Hello, reality? When was that term ever relevant?
NR: I mean, all due respect to him, but Rich plays a creepy guy really, really well. And, maybe because of that, it’s pretty clear early on that Mackey is the killer. So, from 10-pages-in moving forward, I feel nothing for Mackey, and I'm totally on Davey's side. When writing Mackey, was that your intention? Letting the audience know so early that this is the guy?
ML: We never wanted this movie to be a "whodunnit." From the very first conversations we had about the concept, we knew we wanted to subvert that by having the question of the movie never be "is Mackey the guy?", but rather, "is Davey going to let this go?" or "what’s going to happen when Davey finally confirms Mackey is the guy?"
SS: Yeah, Rich himself actually said one of the things that attracted him to the project when he first read it is that the script never lies to you. It doesn’t play that game. We basically tell you right away who the killer is, and from there, we knew the audience’s own desensitization to the genre is what would make them question if it’s real or not for the rest of the movie. We’ve all been so trained by other movies and TV to expect some late reveal or twist that suddenly changes who the real killer is, and with this one, we use that against you in a fun way. And we think it’s still exciting when you get that confirmation, because obviously the movie doesn’t just end there. You realize it truly is Mackey and you feel kind of safe that you had him pegged for a second, and then Mackey goes into overdrive for the rest of the movie.
ML: There was something so interesting to us about following Davey as he realizes it really could be Mackey, and then taking this ride with him to prove he’s right. Having a handful of red herrings and suspicious people just didn’t make sense, though there are a couple we built in to convince those around Davey that his suspicions are crazy — they try to ground him in the reality they think they live in where there’s just no way Officer Mackey could be a serial killer. But Davey’s never convinced or discouraged by those misdirects. To Steve’s point, this is a story about the darkness that lives next door and the scary secrets that the people you know better than anyone can be hiding — if we had Davey running around pointing a finger at a bunch of false leads, it wouldn’t be about that anymore. This movie is about how Davey’s determination and need to be right end up creating the danger and tragedy for him and his friends, and brings that darkness next door into his own home.
Excerpt: Words From a "Mad Man"
The "Sommer of 84" with Rich Sommer.
One of AMC's finest, goes psycho. Mad Man Rich Sommer plays good cop/bad cop/really bad guy, Wayne Mackey.
NR: We know almost within the first five pages that Mackey is a little ... off. I mean, he is everything our parents warned us about.
RS: He’s definitely weird, whether you know about his ultimate crimes or not. My hope was that people would write him off as a red herring, until, of course, they couldn’t anymore.
NR: So, you get the screenplay. You read it. What’s going through your mind?
RS: First off, 80s horror is my favorite subset of horror. I love those movies so much. Reading this script, with its clear homages and commitment to the period, was so exciting. And knowing that I had a chance to be in a 80s-style horror movie seen through a 2000’s lens was really fun. My main worry was that Mackey wouldn’t end up being the killer. I wanted that red herring thing to come back around the bend and to have him actually end up being the killer. That, coupled with the surprisingly violent kill at the end, made it clear that this was a modern movie set in another time. I loved that.
NR: Parents can quite literally show this movie to their kids for a lesson in stranger danger. Have your kids watched SO84 yet?
RS: Oh God, no. I don’t really want them to see me that way quite yet. When they’re older, they’ll be able to see me do all kinds of crazy shit. But I want to wait as long as possible before that.
*More "Words From a Mad Man" still to come. Stay tuned.
Needful "Readful Things"
The Mackey Action Figure. You know you want one.
Nope, not for sale.
NR: I just checked Rich Sommer's Twitter feed and I saw that he's got a Mackey action figure?! Is this a real thing?
ML: Haha, yeah, we saw that too. Pretty cool.
SS: Seriously. I want one.
ML: For two guys who grew up in the action figure era, it’s pretty insane to see one made of a character we came up with. But if anyone deserves it, it’s Rich.
SS: Agreed. 100%.
NR: Rich, I have to know, where do you keep Mackey?
RS: It currently resides on a shelf next to the only other action figures I own, Joe Bob Briggs and The Creep from Creepshow. But it’ll eventually be in its own shadow box or something. It needs a place of honor. It’s one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received.
NR: So, how did all that come about?
RS: I’ve been following Adam from Readful Things for a while. His pieces are spectacular. He and I started communicating a little bit, since I’m such a fan, and then he asked for my address. I was blown away. I didn’t expect him to do that.
The Cutting Room Floor
Every movie has them: the scenes we all hope to eventually see one day.
NR: Was there a scene that you wanted to keep, but was either omitted or revised to the point where it was completely different from your original draft?
SS: Yeah, pretty much any movie has those scenes. We had a couple like that.
ML: One is that the script had a cold open where you see a teenage boy running for his life on the tidal island — which is an island that is accessible by land at low tide, but at high tide, it’s surrounded by water — and the kid gets viciously killed. We cut from the kid’s face, with dead, empty eyes, and we match cut to a front page newspaper photo of the boy filled with youthful life. The newspaper says he’s missing, but we now know better. That scene established the idea of the tidal island that we revisit at the end of the film, and set the dangerous tone for the whole movie (which helped separate it from Stranger Things right off the bat). Another is that there was a different introduction for Nikki that happens at the bowling alley.
SS: Yeah, that cut bowling alley scene was at a roller rink in the original script, by the way. Turns out they don’t have roller rinks in Vancouver, where we filmed it, so it became a bowling alley.
ML: Right. But that intro happens after the guys are looking at Nikki while she’s DJing in her booth. Davey goes to the bathroom, and as he’s coming back, she confronts him in a hallway and puts him on blast demanding to know why he’s been spying on her with his friends. Basically, she thinks he’s a teenage perv. But he tells her in full innocence and embarrassment that he thinks she’s perfect. And she realizes in that moment that it’s not just a sex thing — he actually has a very real crush on her, and she lets him go. So then when she shows up at his house later, it’s clear that she’s sort of selfishly toying with him and having fun — she’s not really romantically interested in him. Without that first scene, a lot of people felt like she really wanted him in that bedroom scene and was aiming for a romantic relationship with him throughout the movie, but that was never the intention. We wrote her to just be this cool, slightly older girl that gets Davey on a level no one else does, and Davey actually listens to her and sees her for who she is on a level no one else does, and they have a platonic bond because of that. That’s why she opens to him about her parents getting divorced and all that — he’s the only one she feels like she can speak to honestly without being judged, because he puts her on such a pedestal.
SS: There’s also the scene at the end when Davey and Woody are running around on the tidal island and realize that’s where they are. That was a little more elaborate in the script. What’s in the movie works, but we had a little more explanation of that in the script. How Woody knows those islands and how the tides are going to trap them there if they don’t find the road fast.
As moviegoers, we have our favorite players. Same goes for writers.
NR: Who did you enjoy writing the most? What made it so?
SS: On a scene-to-scene basis, I think I had the most fun with Farraday. In the original script, he actually has more lines — we even had a scene in the first couple drafts with his overbearing and nerdy parents — and I liked using him to throw in these little horndog lines from a kid trying to prove to his friends that he’s cool and sexually mature (which he definitely isn’t). But I also really liked writing Mackey. He doesn’t have a ton of dialogue in the movie, but when he does have lines, they’re always laced with the secret he’s keeping. And then obviously at the end on the island, we got to go nuts with him and show the true monster.
ML: I loved writing Davey, I think because I was able to express so much of my own imagination through him and his adventure. I can still remember writing the very first words on p. 1 of the script as Davey rode his bike through the neighborhood delivering newspapers because it felt so alive to me. I also loved writing Eats because he’s sort of this misunderstood outcast living in a provincial community that rejects anything outside of the norm. In my town growing up, I was a skateboarder, which basically made me public enemy number one, and I could feel it. My friends and I would occasionally be stopped by cops for no good reason, and it put a chip on my shoulder that I think I still have to this day. Don’t get me wrong, I love the town I grew up in, but at that time, I didn’t have the perspective I have today to see just how great it is, and I somewhat resented it.
You're perfect just the way you are.
NR: If you could go back and change something in your screenplay, what would it be?
SS: With this script, I don’t know that I’d really change anything major. There are some moments where I’d go back and revise some of the dialogue lines knowing what I do now, but ultimately, that’s all subjective, nitpicky style stuff. I’m pretty happy with how SO84 turned out.
ML: Yeah, nothing about the script — I was really happy with how it turned out. But I do wish those cut scenes we mentioned were still in the film.
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Final Thoughts, Errs, and Other Misnomers
Actually, in reality, I screwed this one up. My sincerest apologies to Mr. Bauer and his reps for missing my own self-imposed deadline.
By: Nick Runyeard
Evil Editor-in-Chief, 8FLiX